Photos by Chris Casella

Rock Mobster

“We’d draw a pig on a bouy and hope someone would say, ‘Who painted a pig on that bouy?’” said Brett Fletcher, leaning into the punchline.

The whole table laughs, sitting outside under a creaky umbrella, tall trees ringing the clearing, with chickens clucking in the background and time standing still. The biggest rooster I’ve ever seen preens, his iridescent feathers winking in the sunlight. We’re laughing because we just learned that saying “pig” on a boat is unlucky—pigs can’t swim, so they have no place on the rocking and rolling deck.

To learn this bit of folklore, we had to drive north, up 71 and off to the right around the Mid-Ohio exit. The roads are bending and hilly as we whoosh through the countryside, only a quick hour or so from downtown. It’s amazing how fast city becomes country, with warning signs for buggies and sagging gray barns casting shadows on this sunny afternoon.

We’ve taken this trip with the strange goal of finding Maine lobsters, swimming in a little pool, inside a small shed known as “The Lobstah Shack.” A bouy on a roadside sign, with a hand-written “sold out” flyer attached, tells us where to turn. It’s down a grassy driveway, past a pond to the right, beehives to the left, and the journey ends in a single-home cul-de-sac wrapping around a picnic table and a fire pit.

Fletcher is an Ohio-born Maine lobsterman and has the seaman’s gift of storytelling. A lobsterman in the middle of Ohio begs the obvious “fish out of water” chestnut, but the truth is he’s had one foot on land and one foot on deck since childhood. Growing up in Mount Vernon but spending summers at his grandmother’s place in Maine, Fletcher is half flatlander and half down-easter. At 5 years old, he received an autographed copy of The Lobsterman by renowned Maine artist Dahlov Ipcar and, at that moment, the fire was lit to join the rough and rugged world of lobstering.

After graduating The Ohio State University with a degree in natural resources management, it was off to the sea. “That first year, I had no idea what I was doing—I mainly drank a lot of beer.” The people of the Northeast are not known for throwing open their doors to newcomers, and Fletcher experienced a little hazing when he first set out his traps. “I bought 200 traps and woke up to most of them cut,” he recalled. “I think I had 13 left.” When lobstering, traps are sent to the bottom of the ocean, where the surprisingly intelligent “bugs” roam. Buoys tell the lobsterman where his traps are—each boat has its own colored floaters, Fletcher’s were black and white—so when a buoy is cut, say sayonara to the informal GPS, as well as to the traps under the waves.

When a lobster boat finds a section of the water where the scavengers of the sea are thick and plenty, it’s called a “honey hole.” “There are big lobsters and they have their territory and hiding spots; while off to the edges are the misfit lobsters, the ones with one claw. We’d take paint pens and write messages on the lobsters, like, ‘I’m gonna get you,’ for the next guy to see.”

“It was the Wild West out there…I was in a lot of fights…there were guns in faces, knives everywhere,
a lot of sabotage…”

“It was the Wild West out there—when times are good, everyone is fun, when times are bad, all hell breaks loose. There are trap wars; sometimes there’d be 1,000 buoys floating in the bay looking like sprinkles on a cake…I was in a lot of fights—my nose used to be straight—there were guns in faces, knives everywhere, a lot of sabotage—‘trap molestation’ is what it was called.”

After 16 winters of this life, Fletcher felt it was time to come home. The prices had fallen, there was a woman, and there was the dream of The Lobstah Shack. “People thought it was crazy,” he laughed. “I’ve always wanted to bring lobsters back to the people in Ohio, have lobster bakes, and have the best of both worlds…it’s been better than I ever dreamed.”

The local newspaper ran a short story on the opening of the shack back in 2009, and come Saturday morning, there was a line of cars all the way down the driveway. This was Fletcher’s first time using his tank setup and he was just a little nervous. “I didn’t know if they’d be alive,” he said, “I was reaching in there, praying.” Alive they were, and lobster fans have been driving from as far as Cleveland for the marine blue crustaceans. He always sells out.

“Sometimes, we’d just cook ’em right here,” he said, motioning to the fire pit. “Open some beers—it’s great to meet everyone.”

Sadly, this season has not been kind to The Lobstah Shack. The Chinese have recently acquired a taste for Maine lobster and are buying ’em all, driving up the price, while Fletcher has had some medical issues that have kept him off the road. However, his friends and lobster clients are all lending a hand in a living display of karma. “My friends are shipping them back for me and my lobster customers; they are the greatest people,” he said. “Someone leaves money in an envelope in the post box, and I know it’s one of my customers.”

Yet, Fletcher’s promise to bring lobster to Ohio flatlanders is one he intends to keep. A few hundred pounds of the delicacy will arrive on June 19, just in time for Father’s Day lobster bakes and picnics. And a little culinary advice: celery does not belong in a lobster roll. “I guess I’m a purist,” he shrugged. Additionally, the top-split New England bun is a must.

Traveling to The Lobstah Shack is more than just a foodie field trip, it’s a chance to sit and spin stories, make new friends, and be dazzled by those that add to the cultural patchwork of Ohio.

Just don’t say “pig” on the drive up—you never know.

To keep up with the lobster situation at  The Lobstah Shack, as well as read  some amazing accounts of Fletcher’s time on the sea, like The Lobstah Shack on Facebook.